Groping at the Sky-Hi


TWO DAYS short of my 50th birthday last month, I took my wife to the Sky-Hi Drive-In Theater east of Helena, Mont.

The Sky-Hi, which I hadn't patronized for 32 years, was a fixture of my youth. I learned several valuable lessons there. I learned the elements of necking. I learned that I would never be able to unclasp a bra with one hand. (Some of my more dexterous classmates, I heard, could do it, but I gave up after several failed, embarrassing attempts.)

I learned, too, that the opposite of a fast girl is not a slow girl; it is a good girl, and the girls I knew in Helena, Mont., in the 1950s were good. Each had a goodness threshold beyond which she would not allow her date to venture. Reaching it, she would gasp, "I can't!" and either leave the car or turn cold as Logan Pass in February.

That happened one night in 1958 with S.

S. and I were in my 1953 Mercury, and I was pressing her against the right-front door, panting furiously. Suddenly, she cried, "I can't!" She opened the door abruptly and bolted for the snack bar. I literally tumbled from the car, landing on both palms in the Sky-Hi gravel. It was an embarrassing moment.

As it happened, S. called the other day. She was drawing up her will, she said, and wanted me to be co-executor of her meager estate. I agreed, and after we took care of business, I told her I had been back home -- neither of us has lived in Helena since 1960 -- and had taken my wife to the Sky-Hi.

It was then that I learned that the fair sex learned just as many lessons at the Sky-Hi as the unfair sex. Those early fondlings had been just as instructional for girls, S. said. She said girls had discussed boys' necking and petting techniques and even had bTC rated us (egads!) in their own circles.

The threshold, she explained, had nothing to do with goodness; it had to do with terror. "Had you gone any further," she said, "neither of us would have known what to do. It was a terrifying prospect."

S. then chuckled. "We sure had some good times at the Sky-Hi, didn't we?" she said. There was just a hint that S. is still a flirt. I wondered if she was still a good girl, but I refrained from asking.

I hadn't known my wife when last I passed through the Sky-Hi's gates in 1959. (She is from Detroit, and I met and married her at college in New York.) In 1991 we went to a double-feature that started at 10 p.m. She was not crazy about going to the drive-in. She'd go, she'd said, only if I refrained from reminiscing the whole while about my boring high school days and if I absolutely took her back to the motel after the first show.

This was not my 1953 Mercury, nor was it my father's Oldsmobile. Worse, it was my father's Mazda pickup, with a gearshift splitting the front seat. All thoughts of reprising exploits of the 1950s went by the board. My wife sat primly. I took off my shoes. That was all I took off.

Sad to say, the Sky-Hi, like me, is showing its age. Weeds grow freely, especially near the speakers at the periphery. The snack bar is dank and smelly. On a Friday night, there was only a smattering of cars, and most left after the first film. The Sky-Hi may be on its last reel.

I noticed two other differences. One was the poor quality of the sound. We drove to three speakers (using our parking lights so as not to bother other patrons) before we realized that this was the sound quality we had bought for our $8 admission. The other difference was that the screen was was so dull that it was almost dark. I had to squint through the tops of my bifocals to make out what was going on. (Perhaps three decades of watching television had spoiled me.)

As we left, I complained: "I can't remember the sound being so scratchy or the screen being so dark."

"But you didn't go to the drive-in for the movie," said my wife. She had a point.

Mike Bowler edits this page.

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